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Legendary Irish-American journalist and writer, Pete Hamill

Pete Hamill in awe of Frank McCourt's 'Angela's Ashes'

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Legendary Irish-American journalist and writer, Pete Hamill

“We all love Margaret. She has black curly hair and blue eyes like Mam and she waves her little hands and chirps like any little bird in the trees along Classon Avenue. Minnie says there was a holiday in heaven the day this child was made. Mrs. Leibowitz says the world never saw such eyes, such a smile, such happiness. She makes me dance, says Mrs. Leibowitz.”

Seven weeks later, Margaret is dead. A doctor comes to the flat and then says he’ll have to take the dead child with him for an examination.

“My mother begs for another few minutes with her baby but the doctor says he doesn’t have all day. When dad reaches for Margaret, my mother pulls away against the wall. She has the wild look, her black curly hair is damp on her forehead and there is sweat all over her face, her eyes are wide open and her face is shiny with tears, she keeps shaking her head and moaning. Ah, no, ah, no, till Dad eases the baby from her arms. The doctor wraps Margaret completely in a blanket and my mother cries, oh Jesus, you’ll smother her. Jesus, Mary and Joseph help me. The doctor leaves. My mother turns to the wall and doesn’t make a move or sound. The twins are awake, crying with the hunger, but Dad stands in the middle of the room, staring at the ceiling. His face is white and he beats on his thighs with his fists. He comes to the bed, puts his hand on my head. His hand is shaking. Francis, I’m going out for cigarettes.”

No room for irony here. More than half a century later, there is only the raw pain. And the remorseless details. Unlike many other men who went for cigarettes or milk or a loaf of bread during the Depression and never came back, the father returns two days later. Aunts and neighbors try to deal with the four children and the ruined, inconsolable mother. But America is over. Soon they are on their way back to Ireland, the money for the fare borrowed from Angela’s mother, and we are only on page 45. Up ahead, across the Atlantic, death is waiting.

In Eamon deValera’s Ireland, the McCourts find their way to the vile slums of Limerick, to rooms crawling with fleas and lice, to rotting houses slithery with rats. All the elements of what Oscar Lewis called “the culture of poverty” are present: heavy drinking, the loss of pride, growing dependence on the wan generosity of bureaucrats, the unraveling of family structure, a belief that the game is fixed and no effort can change anything. You can see it in the slums of Mexico City and in the projects of Detroit, but in Limerick in the 1930s, it was compounded by the power granted to the Church by deValera, and the insistence that no Irish person could be truly happy until dead.

And death was always in the lanes of Limerick. Frank and his brother Malachy see the twins die, first Oliver and then Eugene six months later. Pneumonia. Poverty. Days go by when the children literally starve, when there is not even bread to soak in water. The father keeps drinking. He drinks the few pounds he gets in wages. He drinks the dole money. He blames the deaths on the foggy airs of the River Shannon. He sings about Roddy McCorley. He sings about Kevin Barry. He tells tales of Cuchullain.

After the twins die, the McCourts move to a house on Roden Lane in Barrack Hill, two up and two down, six shillings a week, getting scraps of second-hand furniture through the St. Vincent De Paul Society, moving them through the streets in the pram no longer needed by the twins. The ground floor floods in the steady gray rains; they move upstairs to what the father dubs Italy, so sunny and dry, the downstairs being Ireland. The first night, a man goes by carrying a bucket to deposit in the outside lavatory.

“Mam goes to the door and says, why are you emptying your bucket in our lavatory? He raises his cap to her. Your lavatory, missus? Ah, no. You’re making a bit of a mistake there, ha, ha. This is not your lavatory. Sure, isn’t this the lavatory for the whole lane. You’ll see passing your door here the buckets of eleven families and I can tell you it gets powerful here in the warm weather, very powerful altogether. ‘Tis December now, thank God, with a chill in the air and Christmas around the corner and the lavatory isn’t that bad, but the day will come when you’ll be calling for a gas mask. So, good night to you, missus and I hope you’ll be happy in your house.”

The odor of stewing excrement permeates the air, like a metaphor for Ireland itself. Somehow, while the father sinks deeper into the delusions of the pubs and the mother slides into hysteria and self-pity, Frank gets educated. Most of the kids are cruel and parochial, but not all; most of the schoolmasters are ignorant fools, but not all. Frank struggles against what I’ve called elsewhere the Green Ceiling; that repulsive, self-limiting strain in Irish life that discourages all dreamers, all those attempting excellence, with the question: Who do you think you are? And he burns with a need to live.

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